Dozens of men, women, and children fleeing turmoil and poverty in Haiti have been sheltering in a lobby at Boston Medical Center amid a housing crisis that leaves migrant families with few to no options for finding an affordable home.
Dr. Alastair Bell, president and interim chief executive of Boston Medical Center Health System, said Friday that Haitian refugee families have been passing through the hospital as a temporary shelter going back to the fall of 2021, shortly after Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake that sent people fleeing the country.
After a winter lull, the numbers of homeless refugees seeking shelter at the South End hospital has “risen dramatically,” in recent weeks, Boston Medical Center said in a statement.
The hospital had 55 people, including young children, spend the night Wednesday in a lobby near the main entrance. People had previously been sheltering in the Emergency Department’s waiting area, but they were eventually moved to the lobby where there is less activity at night.
“We really pride ourselves on helping everyone, but the hospital is just not set up to be a shelter,” Bell said in an interview. “We’re also not a housing agency, and it’s placing an increasing strain on our social work department, emergency department, and support teams that are trying to manage the situation on a day-to-day basis.”
The hospital assisted an estimated 631 homeless families last year, including many from Haiti, Bell said. The hospital is already on track to outpace that figure in 2023, having already served more than 400 families, most of whom were from Haiti, since the beginning of this year, he said.
Bell, as well as advocates who work to place refugees in affordable housing, are worried the surge will continue to grow heading into the summer.
Hospital leaders have had ongoing conversations with city and state officials about the issue, but the number of people coming to the hospital for shelter, even if only for a couple of days, has reached an “unsustainable” level, with the facility on track to outpace the number of homeless assisted last year, Bell said.
Governor Maura Healey’s office said the state has been working to find shelters for families and has provided resources for children, including formula, diapers, and portable cribs. Families have also received three meals each day provided by the Salvation Army, according to Healey’s office
“Right now, our priority is getting these families the shelter and support they need,” Jillian Fennimore, a spokesperson for Healey’s office, said in an e-mail.
“We have been working closely with the City of Boston and BMC to help coordinate immediate shelter placements, provide basic necessities, and meet health care needs. With our shelter system operating at capacity, our administration has been taking every step possible to ensure families have a safe place to sleep.”
A spokesperson for Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s office said the city is responsible for housing individual adults in city shelters, while the responsibility lies with the state to house families through the family-based shelter system.
“The City of Boston is working closely with our partners at the state, hospitals, nonprofits, churches, and community members to help support families,” Wu’s office said in a statement. “We will continue to monitor the situation and are ready to be a strong partner to the state as it leads on this crisis.”
For homeless people seeking shelter, the hospital provides them with blankets and pillows, food, baby formula, and diapers, Bell said. The hospital has previously been able to offer sleeping cots, but the numbers they are seeing now far outpace what is available, he said. All they can offer are chairs, he said.
“It is really tragic to consider that these people are at the end of a pretty devastating journey and the hardships to get to this point, and then to have the option be that they sit in a chair,” he said. “These are young kids, 2 and 3 years old, bouncing about in a hospital lobby in the middle of the night. It’s a really difficult situation.”
Bell is hoping the state can step in so hospital staff can focus on their main responsibility of providing medical care. Some families do require medical care, including many with children who arrive malnourished following a long and grueling passage. But once they are brought back to health, the families don’t know where to turn next.
Greater Boston is home to one of the largest Haitian diaspora populations in the country, and many continue coming to the region to find their friends and family and begin working toward a new life, said Jeffrey Thielman, president and chief executive of the International Institute of New England, which serves newly arrived migrants in the Boston area.
“We have a very challenging situation because there’s not enough affordable housing for many residents in the state but there’s also not enough affordable housing for people who want to come here and live and work, like the Haitians do,” Thielman said. “When I meet a Haitian family, the first thing they want to do is work. They want to get into the economy and work.”
He expects more families will arrive in the coming months.
“I think it’s going to get more intense this summer,” he said.
Globe Correspondent Claire Law contributed to this report.